Emotional Wellbeing

Mental Health


Mandy Kloppers

Thought reality versus actual reality

If you’ve ever watched the move – “The Matrix” you will have been introduced to the idea of alternate realities. Think baoit how real your dreams can seem, they feel real even though they are part of your thought reality, not actual reality (in terms of physical matter). So what is the difference then between thought reality versus actual reality? Why is it important to know the difference?

Cognitive defusion techniques

Cognitive Behavioural Therapists focus a lot of effort of helping clients separate reality from their thoughts. There are many reasons for this. Defusion involves distancing or disconnecting from our thoughts in order to see then just as thoughts, not as facts. The two realities are often very different.

Has it ever happened to you that someone has been rude to you or ignored you and you have immediately thought you must have done something. We end up mind reading to figure out what is going on. One thought leads to another and soon we are engrossed in thought reality. The actual reality might be very different. Perhaps the other person just slept badly and her silence has nothing to do with you.

The problem with buying into or believing our thinking too much is that often we engage in something called “errors in thinking” where there is no evidence but we think it anyway. Many of the errors in thinking have no evidence to back them up but we believe them and they create distress, anxiety or unhappiness. it makes sense to separate from our thinking, acknowledge their content but always ask youself these three questions:

  • Where is the evidence?
  • Is this thinking helpful?
  • Are there alternative viewpoints, could I try to see this in a different way?

If we use the above example of a friend/colleague ignoring us. An automatic thought might be, “I have annoyed this person, they don’t like me”

We are assuming this as we don;t know for sure what this person is thinking. Unless they tell us outright that they dislike us, we have no clear evidence for this thought process.

If we look at how helpful this thought is, we could say it isn’t helpful as it bothers us or makes us worry that we may have upset someone. It would be better not to be thinking this thought.

Are there alternatives? Absolutely – they could be tired, they might not have heard you or there could be another equally valid reason.

When we ask the three questions, we get into the healthy habit of not automatically believing our thoughts. Our thinking can often lead us to worry, to be fearful and to live a life where inwardly we feel nervous and stressed. learning to let go of thoughts like these help us to enjoy a better quality of life. I know, because I use these defusion techniques regularly.

So, the abive example was to do with mind reading but there are other types of errors in thinking that lead us to feel anxious or depressed. Again, these thoughts will come automatically. Cognitive Behavioural Therapists refer to these as “NAT’s” – negative automatic thoughts.

Other errors in thinking:

Catastrophising: where we assume the worst outcome.

Predicting the future –  ‘what if’ thinking

Black and white thinking – no middle ground, very rigid thinking. Thus can lead to added stress. Flexible thinking leads to higher levels of happiness

Emotional reasoing – I feel upset therefore it must be true

Critical self – listening to the inner bully. Don’t do it. Others may not see you as you see yourself. being self critical only leads to sadness

Personalising – blaming yourself for something that has nothing to do with or is out of your control

Musts and Shoulds – who said? Why must you or should you? When we place unnecessary pressure on ourselves we place unnecessary pressure too.

For more info on other types of errors in thinking click here

Being aware that your thoughts don’t all need to be focused on gives you a lot more brain space to focus on more productive thinking. Imagine your thoughts as leaves floating on a stream. They are passing you but you don’t need to pick up each leaf and study every vein and contour. You could just watch it float by because, soon enough, there’ll be many more floating by. Learn to focus on the good thoughts, the healthy thoughts that help you not hinder you. We all have an inner bully that loves to remind us of our shortcomings, learn to ignore it.

Another way to distance yourself from your thought reality is to imagine you are a bus driver. You have to drive your bus from point A to B. The only problem is that you have all these disruptive passengers on the bus saying things like, “You’re a terrible bus driver, we might never get there”; “What if we get lost?; “You probably can’t even drive!” etc.If you focused on what they said you would never get on with the task at hand. And so it is in actual reality. When we allow our thought reality to overpower us we become afraid and we avoid. Think of your thoughts as those passengers on the bus. Go out there, apply for that job, ask that person out, do those things you’ve been afraid to do because you have let your thought reality rule you.

Know the difference between the two. Your quality of life will be higher, you will probably make more out of the opportunities that come your way and you will be less anxious and/or stressed.

Mandy X